At the BnF

Dennis Duncan

The past decade has been a strange one for the Oulipo. For most of its existence, the Parisian literary collective has been, if not quite clandestine, then hardly in the spotlight. A rare survivor from the avant-garde movements of the last century, the Oulipo’s mission has always been to explore the possibilities of ‘constrained writing’, as in Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which avoids any use of the letter e. Unlike some of its antecedents, bound up with the revolutionary politics of the early 20th century, the Oulipo has never set out to change the world; rather, a certain retiring bonhomie – perhaps a reaction to its co-founder Raymond Queneau’s time in the fractiousness of the Surrealist movement of the 1920s – has been written into its structures from the outset.

Over the last few years, however, the Oulipo has risen to something approaching prominence, at least in terms of its influence on other writers. Stephen Burt said a few years ago that ‘US and Canadian writers seem to be on an Oulipo kick’. The internet is in part responsible: even the most reticent collective can become conspicuous if other people find it interesting enough. But since 2007 there’s also been a (more or less) monthly event at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Les jeudis de l’Oulipo, and in 2012 Harvard published a book-length history of the group, Many Subtle Channels, by the young American member Daniel Levin Becker. Now the BnF, which owns a substantial archive of Oulipo materials, has put on a large exhibition.

The show, at the library’s Arsenal site until 15 February, is a colourful and witty one. Two rooms introduce the group in terms of its prehistory (the wartime experiences of early members are given the emphasis they warrant), its founding at a conference in 1960, and its organisation: meetings, minutes and manifestos. Another small room runs through the group’s members, now numbering in the low forties, the latest recruits joining earlier this year.

Because of the programmatic nature of Oulipian work, the traditional problem with presenting archival literary material – that it’s all textual and therefore not very visually engaging – barely arises. Many of the manuscripts on show are bright, felt-tip diagrams, working out the solutions to the algorithmic riddles of plot or character that the writers have imposed on themselves. (In Queneau’s maxim, Oulipians are ‘rats who build the labyrinths from which they will try to escape’.) There are wooden puzzles that allow visitors to shuffle words in re-enactment of some of the combinatorial games that underlie Oulipian wordplay. One wall is taken up with a display of the group’s internal publication, the Bibliothèque Oulipienne, which runs to more than two hundred issues.

The final room is dedicated to Oulipo-style spin-offs in other genres, the so-called ou-x-pos, where x might be photography, comics, theatre, crime fiction: anything where creative capital might be gained by imposing voluntary constraints; a couple of line drawings suggest the combinatorial possibilities of pornography.

The exhibition’s emphasis is on the Oulipo’s early decades. Camille Bloomfield, one of the curators, says in the catalogue that ‘to write the history of a group like the Oulipo today, when they are more alive than ever, raises a contradiction’. But the exhibition tacitly suggests something slightly different. Call it the Rolling Stones Paradox: that a group should be bigger than ever in commercial terms when their greatest hits are many years behind them.

Meanwhile, contemporary writers (Christian Bök is one example) are producing work that is to all intents and purposes Oulipian, except that its creators are not card-carrying Oulipo members. Perhaps we should call this work oulipian with a small o, just as people use the word surreal in everyday conversation without implying any reference to Breton et al. (An nGram chart shows surreal emerging long after Surrealism’s heyday, and becoming ever more frequent, overtaking Surrealist in the late 1980s.) As the Oulipo’s stock continues to rise even as their major work seems more and more distant, we are reaching a point at which oulipian as a descriptive term needs little introduction, but shows like this one, with its focus on the contexts and activities of the group in its earliest days, are most welcome.


  • 4 February 2015 at 1:47pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    Gratifyingly Oulipo's stock is still bigger than the Ngram too